Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

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8 thoughts on “Filthy Lucre

  1. The ultimate goal of capitalism, alas.

    It will create winners and losers, then split the winners into another group of winners and losers, and then split that group, etc., until you get to the point where we are now — the “winners” are a very small amount of the population, yet hold such a huge portion of the wealth. The gap between haves and have-nots is dangerously large. And the clawing, grimy greed that comes with trying to be one of the “winners” erodes so much of the fabric of society. We see it with newspapers and other industries that were once stalwarts of democracy, hallmarks of life — a great many are owned by chains, corporations whose stock is publicly traded. Shareholders demand more returns on their investments, and don’t re-invest money in the very properties they own. They really don’t care, because their investments are short-term: make a quick profit, then sell the stock off. In the meantime, the property – be it a local newspaper, a manufacturing or food-processing plant — dies for lack of care and resources or is relocated to Mexico, India, China. All in the name of one more buck for someone other than those who do the actual work.

    A dangerous moment in our history.

    In regard to Jewish money-lenders from centuries ago, was it also the case that many went into such fields as banking because they were forbidden by law or practice (by bigotry, in other words) from owning property, owning other businesses in most of Europe? This was the only option they had left?

    • Great comment, Dana. Many thanks. As far as the question is concerned, I honestly don’t know, but will try to find out. I suspect (from what I do know) that banking was one of the very few businesses available to them. Prejudice against the Jews is as old as time itself and was deep into the European psyche long before Hitler came along.

  2. What a timely and depressing piece. I may post it on my FB page, if that’s all right with you. Interesting to note, perhaps, that over here I doubt very many of our rich folk go to church!

  3. While I have nothing against people making money, I think two criteria should apply: that they use at least a significant part of it to help others, and that they did not hurt others in the process of making the money. That said, I don’t see the making of money as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success, although in some cases that is surely the case. But it is more likely a sign of, as you said, being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, or stepping on other people on the climb up the ladder. There are exceptions, Gates and Buffett being two notable ones. But then, I lean heavily toward socialism, so what do you expect? 🙂 Excellent post, my friend!

    • I lean toward social/democracy — as per Norway and Sweden. Those who simply cannot swim against the current need help and the wealthy are entitled to their filthy lucre as long as they help others and make sure there is a way for the “others” to keep their collective heads above water!

  4. Hugh, one of the things that tickles me is the prosperity church doctrine. And, when it is taken to the next level of greed with the prosperity evangelists, it becomes at best sleazy and at worst criminal. I lived in a city where Reverend Jim Bakker went to jail for screwing people out of their savings, but he is a piker compared to these sleaze balls. Gordon Gekko would have gone to prison in real life. Greed is not good. Keith

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